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Sunday Sitdown: Dr. Jessica Kandel, fighting childhood cancer

Dr. Jessica Kandel. | James Foster / Sun-Times

Her background fairly screams Hollywood. Granddaughter of Aben Kandel, co-writer of “I Was A Teenage Werewolf.” Daughter of Stephen Kandel, a prolific TV writer for shows such as “Batman,” “Star Trek,” “Mannix,” “MacGyver,” “I Spy” and “Mission: Impossible.” As a kid, she walked barefoot to a dimestore in the middle of Beverly Hills. But Dr. Jessica Kandel “always liked science.” In college, she was intrigued by the bubonic plague. She’s gone on to a medical career that’s included a role in understanding how the tumor-slowing cancer drug Avastin works. A pediatric surgeon, Kandel heads a laboratory at the University of Chicago’s Comer Children’s Hospital that’s also made inroads helping children with often overlooked, life-threatening conditions. She spoke with the Chicago Sun-Times’ Sandra Guy. An edited transcript follows.

Question: Given your Hollywood family legacy, how’d you get interested in becoming a doctor?

Answer: My mother Anne Kandel is a lawyer. I was one of the unusual kids in my era whose mother was a professional. So, as the oldest of four, I was used to taking care of younger siblings. There was a lot of child-herding in our household: I found out that my older little sister could roller-skate around the block holding the baby. And I always liked science. The convergence of those seemed to be medicine.

Q: You spent childhood summers on Cape Cod, where your grandmother lived down the road from artist Edward Hopper’s cottage. So going to Yale University as an undergrad didn’t seem foreign from your West Coast upbringing. Why did you major in medieval studies?

A: The university was really a revelation. The idea was presented to me that you should use these four years for intellectual preparation — not for preparing for your job or profession.

I studied about the effect of the Black Death — the bubonic plague epidemic in the 14th Century — on English writing. That epidemic, in which 80 percent of the London population died, made me think about how profound the impact of illness can be on many aspects of people’s lives — not just their direct aspirations but how they feel the world around them is treating them. Chaucer might have been one of the only surviving children he knew. That may have given a dark color to some of his writing.

It made me think more deeply of how illness affects all aspects of our lives.

When I meet with the families of children here, I ask, “How are you managing?” It makes the conversations more open to the stress that prolonged illness can have, particularly on children.

Q: What does the internal plumbing condition — vascular anomalies and lymphatic system breakdowns — look like?

A: Children will get what looks like bubble wrap on their skin. Since the lymphatic system runs in parallel with the veins and arteries, some fluid may leak out. The lymphatic system scavenges the fluid and returns it to the central circulation system. The skin’s “bubble wrap” lesions can burst, bleed and get infected.

In our research, we found that beta blockers — very old drugs that have been around since the 1960s — can make a huge impact on treating the condition. Propranolol is a beta-blocker — a well-understood, generic drug that’s generally safe for kids and not very expensive.

I see families who drive from all over the Midwest or who fly in from even farther away. It’s very humbling. We’re offering something special, which is really gratifying. The University of Chicago also offers fantastic opportunities for innovation.

Q: Why is your research so important?

A: I started looking at blood vessels because cancer can’t grow without these. The abnormal blood vessels that cancers induce help tumors grow and spread. We’re uncovering the mechanisms that make windows in blood vessels. Those windows let cancer cells travel into the bloodstream. What happens to these traveling cells when they arrive at their destination? Some spread into the lungs, others into the liver — and we don’t really understand why.

Q: You had a distinguished career at Columbia University before Dr. Jeffrey Matthews, chair of the University of Chicago Medicine’s surgery department, recruited you in the fall of 2013. Your son James, 17, and daughter Anthea, 13, were entering eighth and fourth grades, at the time. Why did you choose Chicago?

A: Dr. Matthews is an all-star in American surgery and a renowned investigator, leader and mentor. Those sorts of people are very rare.

From a personal standpoint, my mother had very fond memories of her undergraduate years at the University of Chicago, when the Great Books program was in full force. You learned geometry by reading Euclid. She loved that. It gave her a respect for going back to first sources.

Dr. Jessica Kandel. | James Foster / Sun-Times

Q: What’s your outlook given scientists’ fears about climate-change denial, President Trump’s immigrant travel ban and domestic-spending cutbacks?

A: If the government is not interested in supporting science, that means there will be less money for research. People who might have been dedicated to research may do something else. We lose the opportunity to develop new knowledge and develop the next set of people who would actually find that new knowledge. These things make a difference for the human experience. We won’t have the tools to take better care of people who are suffering.

We’ve had funding from the National Institutes of Health at this lab for years, and I am strongly supported by philanthropic organizations such as the Pediatric Cancer Foundation. In past years, we’re raised from $50,000 to $100,000 — and $100,000 would be a little less than half of our budget.

I’m also worried about the impact of shifting insurance coverage, especially since 61 percent of children in Illinois depend on Medicaid. The idea a child could be deprived of health insurance is horrifying to me. If we limit or reverse Medicaid funding, it’s going to be really problematic for children’s health. It can be a whole life lost. That’s very sobering.


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